Helen Bradley looks at free, cloud-based small business software that lets you work from anywhere -- whether you're across town or halfway around the world.
Online office applications make great sense in just about every way from cost to flexibility and accessibility. There are plenty of good online small business software applications to choose from and, while they may not pack the punch of a full-fledged office suite, they offer everything that most businesses need most of the time.
In this roundup, I'll explain why cloud-based office suites make such good sense, what you lose by not using one, and which suites offer the best options.
The Benefits of Online Office Apps
Online office applications are part of an entire range of SaaS (Software as a Service) applications that let you work online anytime -- provided you have a browser and an Internet connection. They're great for everyday work and for working on the go. It doesn't matter what platform you're using -- Mac Linux or Windows -- the application works just the same. You can work with documents on a Mac at work and Windows at home, and you won't notice any difference.
Online small business software tools typically make it easy for you to share documents with other people and to work collaboratively. You can give other people access to either read the documents or to both read and edit them. You can even work on a document at the same time as someone else.
Other aspects of online applications include giving you the capability to give a presentation online so that people in remote locations can view it in real time.
You can also use them to embed presentations and spreadsheets in a Web page or blog. In the article Quick and Easy Surveys with Google Docs, I show how you can use Google's form tool to create an online survey for your website or blog.
The best of the online applications are free and give you generous amounts of online storage. You don't have to shell out extra dollars for offline software unless you see a benefit to doing so.
Online office applications aren't limited to being used on a desktop or laptop and most offer companion tools for Windows Mobile enabled handheld devices, the Android and iPhone. This means you have access to your files at least to view them anytime provided you have a compatible device.
If making backups isn't your strong point then online office applications make good sense because someone else takes care of backing up your data and storing it securely. They also take care of upgrades so you'll always be working with the most up to date version of the software.
The Downside of Online Office Apps
Of course, the news isn't all 100 percent wonderful. If you're on a slow Internet connection then working online will be slow too, and you may find that online applications lack the advanced tools that you're used to using in offline applications.
The companies that provide online office apps also provide security, storage and backups for your documents. Typically, that security is much better than an SMB could ever provide for itself, and it can be a real advantage.
However, it also means that your documents are on a computer that you don't control; you're reliant on others to maintain the service and operate it securely. This lack of direct control over your documents may preclude you from using online applications for sensitive work.
If the online service goes down, you'll have no choice but to wait until it comes back up again. In addition, if the organization providing the service goes out of business then you'll need to move your documents elsewhere -- for this reason, it pays to choose a reputable company with a successful business history.
A Selection of Online Office Applications
The most popular online office applications include Google Docs, Microsoft Web Apps and Zoho. Both Google Docs and Zoho focus on providing an online office application service. They're not an adjunct to an offline product, which is the business model for many other free online office applications.
You can integrate Microsoft Office Web apps with your Microsoft Office software offline, but they're accessible even if you don't own Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office 365, recently out of beta testing and available to anyone in 40 markets around the world, is another serious option to consider.
Google Docs offers a spreadsheet, word processor and presentation application and has been around for a few years. While Google Docs has been a little slow to provide core features in its applications, they're updated and improved regularly.
Recently, for example, Google added conditional formatting and pivot tables to the spreadsheet -- features that are important for analyzing data in a business environment. Google Docs also offers good sharing and collaboration features, as well as an easy-to-use interface. Like Microsoft Office Web Apps, it operates from a central dashboard interface making it easy to see all your documents.
Zoho first launched in 2005, and it offers an extraordinarily large range of business applications in addition to the basic spreadsheet, presentation, and word processor productivity tools. These other applications include chat, discussions, mail, meeting, projects, a wiki, as well as business software such as accounting, CRM, invoicing and online HR.
There are more applications to be found there than most businesses would need -- the basics are free and others are available for a fee; check out the pricing list. Zoho applications are less integrated than Google Docs or Microsoft Office Web Apps. For example, you don’t get a central dashboard interface that shows you where everything is located. But for sheer weight of online business software applications, no other service comes anywhere near it.
Microsoft was a late starter in the world of free online office applications, but it is impossible to ignore. With a Windows Live ID you can sign up for free access to cut-down versions of Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote online.
You don't have to own Microsoft Office, but if you do you can easily integrate the online service with your offline software. You could, for example, save a file from an offline version of Excel direct to Skydrive folder, and the file will become immediately available online and accessible to people with whom you share that folder.
Office online is handy if you needs t work with others who use Microsoft Office, or if you use Microsoft Office at work and want the benefits of using it at home and elsewhere without having to shell out for a full version.
While still too new for it to be deemed "most popular," Office 365 offers a compelling online suite of enterprise-level applications including Exchange Online for email, SharePoint Online for collaboration and Lync Online for unified communications. Most subscriptions to Office 365 include the aforementioned Office Web Apps. Pricing starts for as little as $6 per person, per month.
Whether you are looking for an application to take care of occasional computing needs while on the road, or you're looking for a free online alternative to a paid offline program, you'll find plenty to like in cloud-based small business software.
Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com.
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